Kenya: Move over grandpa: Marginalized youth and aging politics
Platypus Review 4 | April—May 2008
Writing from Kenya after 10 years of what he calls “international exile,” former Kenyan-Chicagoan Oketch Onyango told us that he intended on going back in late 2007 to “raise a little bit of hell in the political scene,” but went “running away from the commodity and bang full circle into it in the savanna!,” and so in response he’s been immersed in “reading critical theory like mad” and “doing some writing which papers here don’t want to touch.” This is one article submitted.
They are young. They are angry. They are articulate and sophisticated. Nearly three quarters of them live in the sprawling slums of major Kenyan cities. These are a new generation of youths, mostly male, educated, jobless, idle and restless. It is a highly politicized generation, with nothing to lose and much anger to vent. They are the new Intifada.
The ruling elite and middle class Kenyans do not understand this bombshell. Putting their faith in the truncheon-welding, Robocop-looking, live bullet-firing apparatus of state, the well-fed class goes to sleep wishing for business as usual. This new generation of youth that uprooted miles upon miles of hundred year- old, narrow gage, colonial relic rail track at will, got shot to death for it, tear-gassed, bludgeoned and cordoned-off in their slums to starve to death, will still limp back and come up for more - leaner, meaner and dangerous like a catamount. That is, unless we address their anger, their frustration and their feelings of hopelessness.
In the meantime, they will not go away. And like the ferocious cats that live in the vast tourist infested parks that dot this country, these youngsters are battling for survival and very unlike the Mara dwellers, they are not faced with extinction; they are here to stay and far outnumber the ruling classes, their well-oiled children and the multiples of security apparatus. And while they might not hit a top speed of seventy miles an hour, they are a formidable quarry. You cannot wish them away, tear-gas them into oblivion, shoot all of them dead or bludgeon them into zombie states. Even if we stalk and gun them down like big game hunters, they are going to outlast and outlive most of the belligerent and intransigent, chest thumping government talking heads and that government motormouth.
Unlike their western counterparts who are caught up in the innards of YouTube and the highway super traffic of the Internet, where users roam, talk and pass gossip only to like-minded cyberdwellers and need never come out to engage in dialogue with non-surfers, these youngsters walk the solid earth, congregate on street corners, shopping centers and narrow alley ways with their ultimate weapon: idleness and uncongealed fury.
Their space is amorphous and expansive, full of unfriendly, pedestrian streets with no street lights and ferocious policemen, filth, overflowing open sewers, muggers, rapists, murderers, con men and women, deprivation and plain hard life. They have neither the apparatus nor the time for gimmicks like MySpace. For them, life is one big Serengeti all over; survival, eat or be eaten. They neither want to understand nor want to know the great pros and cons of a free market or the Nairobi stock exchange. You can quote the price of fish there all day for all they care. They just want to fulfill their dreams, put food on the table and live their lives like dignified human beings – not slum dwellers.
And yet when they get angry, we react with consternation and lament at how age old African traditions that stress humility and respect for elders has gone the way of everything else. Yet not a single one of the elders apply the same tenets of the traditions they froth at the mouth over as they consume rapaciously everything in sight – both nailed down and loose, floating or yet to be produced. Safe within the sanitized and smug life of the glitter, the super malls, the mega-marts, the beefy vehicles, and the walled and gated communities that sickeningly dot our landscape, we roll our eyes and resort to liberal empathies and finger pointing and rant about civilized behavior.
Why should we assume that these youngsters were going to accept this marginalization and class apartheid without a struggle? Why would we not expect the unexpected; that at some time there was going to be a violent reaction, a hatred of both their situation and that which they perceive to be responsible for that violation of their humanity and dignity?
While we bicker and try to out-glare history, to outdo one another in a polarized and politicized public space cum market square that exceedingly belongs to those that act wildest, glare longest and yell loudest, grandly appealing to pathos, we foul the air with blame and rationalization.
What did we think the outcome would be; an entire youth population weaned on a media diet that churns out sixteen-year-old starlets sporting bare midriffs and their foul mouthed boyfriends with whom they wiggle and bounce, and shriek and moan, intoxicated supplicants of an industry that created Britney Spears and Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul?
Almost ninety years ago, Max Ehrmann, that master of the desiderata wrote, “and however much you condemn the evil in the world, remember that the world is not all evil; that somewhere children are at play, as you yourself in the old days.”
You should see the massed wild life crossing the streets of Westlands in Nairobi any given weekend night. Forget the Mara. |P